SHAWNEE — The third time’s a charm.
Rotnei Clarke made sure of that.
The Verdigris Cardinals and the Oklahoma Christian Saints — featuring two of the state’s best high school basketball players — met Saturday night for only the third time in their schools’ history.
This time, the championship of the Bison Invitational was on the line at the Noble Complex on the campus of Oklahoma Baptist University.
Rotnei Clarke, the 6-0 junior Verdigris guard, poured in 38 points to help defeat the three-time defending state champion Saints, 53-38.
Knocking off OCS might be the most significant regular-season win in Verdigris’ recent history.
Clarke is widely regarded as the state’s best guard. Blake Griffin, the Saints’ 6-9 senior, is unanimously regarded as the state’s best big man. Griffin was the Most Valuable Player last spring as OCS finished off a 26-1 record with a dominant sweep of three state tournament teams, winning by an average margin of 26 points.
OCS entered this season as the heavy favorite to win a rare fourth straight title, and Griffin has been a part of the previous three.
Verdigris and Clarke have reached two straight state semifinals, but have yet to reach the title game. The Cardinals are ranked No.2 in Class 3A.
The Saints rolled over the Cardinals, 56-42 in 2004, and 49-29 in 2005, ousting them from the state tournament on both occasions. In 2005, then-freshman Clarke scored only eight points.
Both wins preceded a state championship for OCS. Verdigris hopes for the same result this March.
“This is like a big playoff win,” Verdigris coach Kelly Clarke said Saturday night. “They have three great players and their tradition is so great. This is a huge confidence-builder for us.”
Rotnei Clarke was seven for seven from the free-throw line late in the fourth quarter. He also grabbed two of his team-high eight rebounds in the last 30 seconds, turning one into an assist, and one into two points to seal the win. Clarke finished 10 for 10 from the free-throw line, and shot 46 percent from the field on 12-of-26 shooting.
“He’s a really good shooter,” Blake Griffin said of Rotnei Clarke. “But I felt like we did a pretty good job, even though he had 38 points.”
Kelly Clarke said: “Our whole thought process was that if we could just keep it close, then we would have a chance in the end. Every time we got down a little bit, Rotnei would seem to have an answer. He is able to show that he can do it in anyway he wants. You cannot shut him down. He is going to find some way to get it done.”
Griffin, who has committed to play at the University of Oklahoma, led the Saints to a three-point lead after the first period. Junior Adam Hollon, the Cardinals’ biggest inside presence at 6-7, was sent to the bench with two fouls after the first 18 seconds of play.
“I thought at first, it was bigger than it was,” Kelly Clarke said. “But our kids competed without him and that gave us a boost of confidence.
“We have a lot of new players this year,” he said. “We not only won that game, but we won a lot of mental battles, too.”
Rotnei Clarke scored 10 of Verdigris’ 12 second-quarter points to give the Cardinals a three-point edge at intermission.
“I told the team at halftime that when we lost to OCS my freshman year, we were up at halftime and we let it slip away,” Rotnei Clarke said. “That was the worst feeling, and I told them we weren’t going to let this one slip away.”
Griffin finished with 17 points and nine rebounds.
“Collectively, on defense is where we won the game,” Kelly Clarke said. “I thought at times we had (Griffin) defended pretty well and he still went and scored. But we did about as good of a job on him as our size disadvantage would allow.”
Since Kelly Clarke and his nephew arrived at Verdigris three years ago, the Cardinals have never lost in the finals of an invitational tournament.
“Your kids just start believing in that type of situation,” Kelly Clarke said. “I think now it has become a habit and the Verdigris kids and fans expect to win.”